This is a question that is very hard to evaluate. I seem to have quite a few fans out there, both in the industry and in the greater audience. But I know there are many people who think my work sucks, and at least one Youtube troll who was very happy to tell me so.
On one metric I’m terribly deficient. A good movie director is a person who directs movies. I haven’t been on an industry film set for over twenty years. So maybe I was once a good director, but now I’m, at best, a has-been. A washed out old man reveling in past glories and successes while still tortured by the many moments that didn’t work out as I might wish.
So, in developing an evaluation, let me start with my deficiencies. I am a political idiot. I have never paid attention to power or money, or the people who control power and money, to the people who can give me work, or have influence with others to get me work. This is complemented by amazing arrogance. Just one example: On the day before our first shooting day on my second made for TV movie, “On Thin Ice, the Tai Babalonia Story”, the producer, Janet Faust, a highly experienced and quite brilliant woman, said, “I’ll ride to the set with you in the morning.” To which I said, “No you won’t. I ride to the set with my first AD. (Assistant Director, my main support on set.)” Can you imagine anything more stupid than that. Is my firsts AD ever going to give me a job? Hell no. I have worked with some truly supportive Assistant Directors, many of whom went on to have directing careers themselves. Including David Warrysmith, my AD on that picture. And that alone should tell you something. If any of them ever put my name up for a directing position, I didn’t hear about it.
Another painful example. On the last day of shooting my episode of “Wise Guy”, the star woke up to the fact that it wasn’t his scene. Maybe he finally got around to reading the script. It was a wedding banquet scene which culminated in Ray Sharkey garotting an enemy while the undercover cop, surrounded by twenty or thirty armed goombas, looks on helplessly. Kenny Wahl came to me just before we started shooting the scene to complain that his character was a cop. He had to do something. I explained that the whole point of the scene was that he couldn’t do anything. “You’re surrounded by armed goons, Ken. Anything you do is going to blow your cover and get you killed.” Kenny was insistent. Telling him I’d been prepping the show for two weeks and would really like it if he let me just follow the script made no impression on him. So I called Ray Sharky over and said, “Ken says he has to do something in this scene. What do you think.”
Ray asked Kenny, “What do you want to do?” a good logical question.
Ken said, “I have to at least stand up.”
I said, “Ray, Ken wants to stand up. What would you do?”
Ray said, “I’d push him back down.”
I said, “Ken, you’re going to look like an idiot. Please just let us go with the script as written.”
Stephen Canal, owner of the studio, happened to be visiting the set for that scene. Kenny went to him and complained, and Stephen came to me and, very respectfully, asked, “Zale, can you shoot it two ways.”
Now, a director with half a political brain, would have said something like, “He’s got a good point, Stephen. I’ll shoot it his way.” Because Kenny Wall is going to be back as the star of the show for however many shows the series runs. I’m just the director du jour, canon fodder, and they don’t need me to come back ever.
So, what did I do? I wasted the expensive crew time and shot it two ways, pissing off the crew who just wanted to get the scene shot and go home for the day.
Which version did came out of post production? Kenny’s version of course. It looked fine. I never directed another episode of “Wiseguy”. I’m an idiot.
One final example. I was the startup director on “The Edison Twins” at Nelvana in Toronto. The crew, actors, and I had all been breaking our hearts to turn out a good show. We were all proud of our work. But the producers had been showing us our rushes in the studio basement on a double system Siemens projector. The DOP (Director of Photography) had been complaining that the forty foot throw was washing out the images and his work looked terrible. The soundman had been complaining that the projector was adding wow and flutter as well as drowning out the sound. Then we were told that the executives from Disney were coming up to Toronto to see what we’d done. The producers were planning on showing our work on that crappy makeshift projection system. Both the camera crew and sound crew came to me and begged me to do something. Both said they weren’t going to come to the screening.
So I told the producers that I wasn’t coming to the screening unless they held it in a proper screening room at the lab. I presented this as an ultimatum, rather than a polite request and suggestion. Idiot.
Maybe this explains why, at a job interview for PBS in Seattle, I was told “I hear you are hard to work with.” Ya think?
Soon enough this kind of behavior was thinning down my work assignments. I was starting to get hungry. When the school district in Gibsons, after some lobbying by a parents group, APEC (Association for the Preservation of English in Canada, as if English was a threatened language in Gibsons, B.C.) voted to end early French Immersion in the public school system and bring in late French immersion, for grade threes, we French immersion parents decided to send our kids to Quebec for a few months in a French language school. This would qualify us for something called Program Cadre, which by law meant that they would get French immersion anywhere in Canada. We organized a fund raiser, a silent auction, to help cover this expense. One of the items donated for the auction was an hour of personal counseling by a friend of ours, a professional counselor. I knew her regular rate was $60 per hour, and nobody was bidding. So I bid $30 and won the hour.
I had asked her previously what kind of a counselor she was, whether a Freudian or a Jungian or whatever. She told me she didn’t follow any particular style. She simply listened to her clients and told them what they had told her, to help them get a different perspective on their problems. This sounded good to me. So when I went for my hour of counseling, I gave her a “core dump” on my life and career. When I was finished she said, “So…you have told me that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with people who could give you work.” Well, duh. That was damned obvious. I know that….. Of course… I know that.
The thing is, I came at directing from the film workshop at Simon Fraser University. My friends there were film makers, cameramen, editors, soundmen, all of us funding our own projects and working on each other’s little films. They are my kind of people, and I love working with actors, especially amateur actors. And none of these people could ever give me work. I do not relate well to producers, suits, clients, or money people. Truth is, I have authority issues. Those people intimidate me, and I tend to avoid them when I can.
I decided right then that I can be friends with anybody, and without becoming a sycophant or compromising my personality, if I pay attention. I read “How to Make Friends and Influence People” as a teenager. I know how to do it. But by then it was a little late to get started. My reputation was well established.
So this is my biggest failure as a director, my failure to direct. Does this mean I’m a bad director? Not at all.
I have moments in my body of work, going all the way back to my very earliest films, that stand up favorably against the giants of the field. I have directed scenes that look as good as anything the big names of the A list have done. There’s a lot of stuff in my filmography that I’m very proud of.
But this is enough for one post. Maybe next time I will talk about those moments of triumph, the times when I organized chaos into something emotionally powerful, the moments when I made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That’s much more fun to talk about than this has been.